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Cross country on classics

Friday, September 14, 2012

The cannonball run began in Newburgh, N.Y. Riders are reaching the halfway point as they make their way to San Francisco.
(Photos by Russ Mitchell) [Order this photo]
The best thing about going cross-country on a motorcycle?

There's no one in the back seat asking that "Are we there yet?" question.

The good news for the 70-plus participants in the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run is that they've approached the halfway point in a coast-to-coast trek across America. The owners and riders of pre-1930s motorcycles started Friday in Newburgh, N.Y., and stopped in Okoboji to end stage 5 Tuesday night.

Local motorcycle enthusiasts gather around rows of vintage motorcycles Tuesday night in the parking lot of the Inn at Okoboji. More than 70 pre-1930s motorcycles made the 279-mile trip from Anamosa to Okoboji as part of the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run.
(Photo by Russ Mitchell)
Motorcycle buffs from the area met the incoming riders and snapped pictures of their increasingly rare rides. The riders in turn seemed content to relax with a beverage after a wind-swept, 90-degree ride over the state's flat terrain.

The riders will finish the 16th and final stage of their journey in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 23.

Event organizers intentionally plan a scenic, but direct route across country -- the 2012 ride goes through a dozen national parks and forests. Riders will see the coast of Lake Erie, the Badlands of South Dakota, the Rockies and the Golden Gate bridge.

The Motorcycle Cannonball isn't limited to sightseeing, however. The cross-country ride is a competition based on precision riding and navigational skills. The motorcycles also have restrictions: No motorcycle built after 1929 can compete for the championship and it must be powered by an original engine.

Someone familiar under the helmet

Among the Motorcycle Cannonball entrants is Scott Jacobs.

It's safe to say he can afford a brand-new motorcycle -- but he's excited to be on a very old one. Folks in Okoboji might have spotted him with his 1926 Harley Davidson J Model and matching helmet.

Or, if the local motorcycle fans like Harley-Davidson collectables, they might have seen his work. Jacobs started the Harley-Davidson's fine arts program in 1993.

He is commissioned by the motor company to produce a specified number of pieces each year. The originals are sold to collectors around the world. Images are reproduced for use on posters, limited edition prints, puzzles, playing cards, tiles, clothing, tin signs and beach towels as well.

"Some of the products of mine that are produced are what they call 'dealer exclusive,' which means you have to go into a Harley dealer to buy them," Jacobs said. "Then, other ones are worldwide and you can go into many stores to buy the product."

The Harley artwork has generated its share of transactions. Jacobs has earned enough from his paintings to be the subject of a season 3 "Secret Millionaire" episode on ABC.

Jacobs calls the transition from starving artist to incognito celebrity "kind of a fluke."

"I had been doing celebrity portraits for a number of years," he said. "I did portraits for the late Malcolm Forbes and people like Joan Lunden from 'Good Morning America' and a bunch of the supermodels like Kim Alexis and Kathy Ireland. I did Michelle Pfeiffer's. I did Madonna's. It got to the point, though, where: I'm doing all of these paintings, but there's no market."

For an artist to really make good money, Jacobs said the images have to be marketable.

"You have to be able to use them for posters and limited edition prints and things like that," he said. "There's no market for a limited edition print of Malcolm Forbes standing in front of his helicopter, so I was on the phone with a good friend of mine one day and he goes 'You know, you're into Harleys and no one is painting motorcycle paintings.'"

A skeptical Jacobs did a couple of Harley-Davidson pieces and took them to art expos on both coasts.

"People just loved them," he said. "Another person who came into my booth the same day of the first show was somebody from the Harley-Davidson licensing department saying 'hey, you can't do this,'" Jacobs said. "'These are trademarked images and a trademarked logo. You have to be licensed.'"

"Well, I want to be licensed then," Jacobs remembers telling the Harley representative. Jacobs was told the company doesn't license artwork -- they don't even have an art program.

"Well, maybe you need an art program, because I've been showing these paintings around to a lot of people and they would like to get a poster or a print of it," Jacobs remembers telling the Harley rep.

Less than two months later, the transplanted Californian who grew up in Westfield, N.J. was the first artist licensed by the motor company to do fine art.

As years passed, a couple of people knew enough about Jacobs to call a casting director and conspire to send him back home again.

"They must have written a letter or something," he said. "They said it was an anonymous tip."

'Secret Millionaire'

Jacobs was familiar with the premise behind "Secret Millionaire" and liked the message of the show.

"I've been very philanthropic my entire life," he said. "As soon as I became successful, I've always been donating my artwork and making donations to different charities around the country. So it just seemed like a great opportunity to bring my charity-giving to a new level."

In the first part of an episode, camera crews document the lifestyle of the selected millionaire.

"They show how I made my money, where I live and how I normally live," Jacobs said.

Then they return unannounced in the early morning hours to film the millionaire as he or she packs. One more thing: millionaires can't be "secret" if they bring the trappings of wealth with them.

"We can't bring any nice clothes -- no jewelry -- they take our phones away, they take our money from us -- everything," Jacobs said. "They take us to the airport and they fly us somewhere -- we don't know where we're going yet, until we actually get to the airport."

The show flew Jacobs to Newark, N.J. The Harley artist and his daughter Alexa went undercover to find charities that are making a difference in the show's assigned area. They volunteered for a week under a different last name and stayed in a boarded-up crack house, with holes in the ceiling and rotted floors.

The family ultimately learned about the G.I. Go Fund, a program to help homeless veterans get off the streets. The Jacobs pair looked for displaced veterans at 3 a.m. and tried to document them. With no address, homeless veterans often miss out on the monthly benefits, food and housing assistance they are entitled to through Veterans Administration programs.

"At the end of the week, we unveil ourselves," he said.

Scott and Alexa gave away almost $200,000 on the show. Jacobs called it one of the best experiences of his life.

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"They want to bring the person who stars on the show back to an emotional place," Jacobs said. "I grew up with two alcoholic parents and a very abusive father so it was very emotional for me just to be there."

Back on the East Coast

The starting point for the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball is about 65 miles from where Jacobs landed for the "Secret Millionaire" installment. His current trip will take him a lot farther.

"We're doing just under 4,000 miles," Jacobs said.

Most of the pre-1930s motorcycles can reach 50 to 55 mph comfortably, he says. Some can go faster; others can only approach 40 mph.

Jacobs and the other riders will start Wednesday with a new set of turn-by-turn instructions. From Okoboji, the convoy will go to Murdo, S.D. -- at 326 miles, it's the longest day of the cross-country trip.

You get the feeling Jacobs won't mind the miles.

"To be a part of this 'rolling museum' of classic motorcycles on a trek that started almost a century ago is really amazing," he said. "This is a test of the endurance of both machine and human body."

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